It’s 5 PM on a long hot Friday, and like most working stiffs in America, Jaden Smith is stuck at his job, looking a little miserable, and outwardly itching to punch the proverbial clock for the day. Unlike most working stiffs in America, Jaden Smith could technically leave whenever he wants, because he has no boss or even set hours — Jaden Smith’s career, after all, is to be Jaden Smith. Though his eyes are sunken with fatigue, he’s being a trooper: We are at a photoshoot on the west side of Manhattan, and Smith is posing for photographs for a magazine — this one — in a series of oversized coats and glamorous prints. In this task, he has a whole range of responsibilities, including jumping and knowing where to look in the lens. The photographer needs emotion from the tired star, and so he asks him first to roar like a lion for the camera, and then to laugh, both of which Smith does on cue, the roar more emphatically than the chuckle.
Yes, Smith is an artist, and yes, he is a good one, releasing an album this year called Syre that’s a fun romp of bohemian, stream-of-consciousness California rap in the vein of Tyler, the Creator and Lil B. But everything Smith does is some extension of the larger job of being Jaden, which as a career was both a choice and not a choice: He is the son of the movie stars Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, and the older brother of Willow, who had a hit song called “Whip My Hair” at around the age of 10. Which is to say that the entire world was already a stage for him, but he did not have to step out so forcefully onto it, and even if he did, there was no guarantee that he’d be such a natural once there. When the photos have been taken and the set is coming down, he has one more job to do, which is speak to me, so we peel off to a small conference room and plop on a leather couch. He is 19 and incredibly beautiful, with a puckish glow. He is in a ratty oversized white T-shirt, but could not be mistaken for the average kid, partly because of that beauty, and partly because he is wearing a diamond bracelet so sparkling that no teenager I’ve ever known could afford it.
I tell him that watching him on set made me realize that his job is to be himself for the pleasure of everyone else. “Totally,” he says. “I mean that’s everyone’s job.” I tell him I’m not so sure about that, but he continues. “They just don’t realize it because they’re blinded,” says Smith. “By being me, it’s my job to show people to be themselves.” He’s more right about that: In the past ten years, it’s stars like Smith — and Kanye West and Shia LaBeouf and Marina Abramovic and maybe even, in his own awful way, Donald Trump — who peel back the curtain of celebrity and deconstruct persona right in front of us.
By ranting in interviews, calling their own lives performance art, and blurring the line between reality and fantasy, these celebrities reveal something about the nature of performance, and how all of us, unwittingly or not, play roles in public, even if most of us do it for free and even if we (and often the stars themselves) aren’t always sure what it is they are specifically revealing. At the 2017 Met Gala, Smith brought a lopped off bundle of his own hair on the red carpet, and even now, does not or cannot explain exactly what the public is supposed to make of this. “It was just a no brainer,” he says. “It’s the most awesome thing that I could bring.” Smith’s best song, “Icon,” is a brag about who he is, proclaiming himself a legend in real time without needing anyone else to anoint him — I’m just an icon living he raps, emphasizing the word living.
Though he had already starred in a 2010 remake of Karate Kid and made a song with Justin Bieber, Smith found his way into the real beating heart of pop culture through a viral 2014 interview that he did with his sister, in which they discussed quantum physics, something called prana energy and, according to Willow, the fact that the world “is a fragment of a holographic reality that a higher consciousness made.” The conversation was weird enough, particularly coming from the adolescent children of Hollywood idols, to get it passed around the world. “I’m going to imprint myself on everything in this world,” Jaden said then. I ask how he feels about this now, four years later, when he does exist in every corner of pop culture, from music to movies — the forthcoming Skate Nation, which attracted major buzz at Sundance this year — to a celebrated Twitter account. “I don’t feel like I want to be known all the time, no,” he says a little despondently.
In that spirit, I am interested to hear that this very wealthy young man has been living less like a famous person and more like a regular one, even having roommates at his LA home. “There’s just microphones and paint lying around — a lot of wires, a lot of guitars, unopened boxes, bean bags. It’s a creative space,” he says, describing an apartment that sounds not unlike my own at his age. His three roommates are on set today, along with his sister Willow, turning a professional situation into a personal hang out, talking about skateboarding and vegan food. “You have to have a tight circle because you have to know who you can trust,” he says. One of his roommates is on crutches because of a skate accident, and another, Harry Hudson, is a musician in his own right, now opening for Smith on a series of live shows. They performed the prior night in Boston, getting to New York only at 3AM this morning, Smith passing out on the bed of his hotel room, with Hudson on the couch. “People know him from Twitter, but don’t know who he is,” says the 24-year-old Hudson.
Hudson reminds me that whatever Smith might mean to the general public, he means something very real to the people in his life. A few years ago, after a bout of depression left him in a anguish, Hudson found solace by moving in with Smith. “He asked me to come live with him,” Hudson says sweetly. “He wants to take care of people.” This is what’s most admirable about Smith: not that he has a life of luxury, but what he has chosen to do with that life. His current passion is environmental work, and he recently launched a bottled water company — Just Water — with his father that uses partly paper-and-plant-based containers. “Three million people are going to die this year from not having access to clean water,” he tells me (estimates vary, but there is credible research that places the number that high, or even higher). “There is going to be a crazy population of climate refugees.”
Smith, most of all, is trying, one thing that a kid born to millionaires never had to do. “My dad strived for everything his whole life, then he got everything,” he says. “Generational wealth — to the point where I can think about other things. And I want to help other people.” His free time involves reading books about the Industrial Revolution, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the Federal Reserve in an attempt to learn truths that he believes the American education system covers up (he is working on getting his GED now and says one of his long-term goals is to open schools). He famously wore a Batman costume to the wedding of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, which people thought was a goof, but he says it was genuine. “That Batman costume is real. I do want to save the world,” he says. At times, he sounds like socialist Bernie Sanders, not the son of movie stars. “The amount of money that the richest families have is not proportionately spread across the world,” he says. “The balance is off.”
He is passionate, too, about messing around with gender paradigms, something he has practiced by modeling womenswear in a campaign for Louis Vuitton. A recent meme passed around on the Internet showed a young boy wearing a skirt with the words “Inspired by Jaden Smith” and flame emojis above the photo. “That’s what I’m trying to do, and it’s working.” His forthcoming movie, Skate Nation, focuses on female skaters and breaks the pop culture image of skating as an activity just for young boys. “People just perpetuate sexism,” he says. “That’s why I focus on these projects. I can be sitting around complaining all day or I could be like, ‘I’m going to work on my next album.’”
It’s also important that Smith is backing up his celebrity with real artistic achievements for practical reasons: It’s possible that the idea of pure performance art fame has begun to sour, particularly since the American electorate voted one such celebrity, ill-equipped for anything except being himself, into the most powerful position in the world. “Donald Trump” might be a social construct, but Donald Trump has his hands on the nuclear codes. At the time of our conversation, Kanye West, who has said he will run for President in 2020, had recently become a target of anger after tweeting in support of Trump, forgetting or not realizing that there are still boundaries to what people are willing to accept.
Around the time of the West controversy, Smith tweeted the phrase “False Idols,” and though he declines to say whether this was about Kanye, who he has professed to idolizing in the past, he says his ideas about celebrity have changed. “Somebody you may have looked to for guidance may not always be that way,” he says. “You might idolize people, but you have to actually check on what they believe in.” Again, he’s right, which is why it’s been so good to check in on him and find someone deliberate about his intentions, aware that hard work is a part of his job description as much as looking fashionable is, and not actively running for President. At this year’s Met Gala, instead of arriving with a handful of his own cut hair, he showed up with a framed gold record plaque for SYRE, drawing attention to his art, not his persona.
Still, the bubbly cosmic futurism that Smith was once known for has faded a bit (at least by this late hour on Friday), partly because his fame has made him feel isolated — he feels like an animal sometimes when fans rush him in public — and partly because of what he’s increasingly learned about the world. Like so many kids who leave the nest and join the grind of the working world, the rosy, naive perspective of childhood is gone, and he tells me he has suffered bouts of depression brought on by feelings of impending environmental doom. “I’m not an optimistic person. I know that a lot of good people are going to get hurt,” he says. “I could see everybody just ceasing to exist.” This, unfortunately, is also something he could be correct about, but he also knows that just like the rest of the planet, he’s got to wake up each morning to an imperfect, troubling world and get to work, even if that work is just making himself a better person for everyone else. “I want to make people aware. I’m going to keep on trying for the rest of my life,” he says. “In hopes of inspiring other people to change themselves, I can only think about changing myself.” So far, a job well done.